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Sometimes a story is good medicine

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Spring


Many people have heard Kimberly Robin Guy—who is in recovery from trauma, depression, and substance use—tell her story to help them get through similar experiences. Just ask Yolanda Herring.

“I thought I had conquered everything when I got clean,” says Herring, who is in recovery from mental illness and drug addiction, “but Kim helped me see that ‘conquer’ isn’t one of those words that you should use. She pointed out to me that there are many things inside us that are hidden and surface later.”

Over many hours talking with Guy and learning from her experience, Herring, now a recovery support specialist and financial coach at the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health (PRCH), learned two big lessons: acceptance of life and taking responsibility.

“Kim has helped me tremendously,” Herring says. “To think of all the things she’s been through and where she is now—it’s amazing.”

Guy’s story begins in 1966, the year she was born in a Connecticut juvenile detention center. Her mother, struggling with her own mental health problems, was in state custody. Guy went into foster care and didn’t meet her mom until she was 5 years old. When she was 12, her mother died of a drug overdose. Her father, on life support from a gunshot wound, died the next day. By the time she was 13 and pregnant with her first child, Guy convinced a judge that she no longer needed foster parents and became “emancipated.” She remained a ward of the state and continued to receive benefits but was not required to have a guardian. She’s lived on her own ever since. She got an apartment in public housing, and at age 16 she began working as a nurse’s aid to support herself and her family.

After the birth of her fourth child in 1993, she became depressed. Two years later she began receiving mental health treatment and, for the next 20 years, was in and out of the mental health system. Her treatment included psychiatric hospitalizations, medications, electroconvulsive therapy, and home visits from a nurse. It never included “talk therapy.”

In 2003, frustrated with too many medications and their debilitating side effects—she had gained 100 pounds—Guy decided to stop taking meds. At the Connecticut Mental Health Center she met Cenk Tek, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Psychosis Program there. His assessment, that she is a trauma survivor, changed her life.

“He said to me, ‘I’m sorry, but what you have we don’t have a pill for,’ ” Guy recalls. “‘You’ve been in a war. You know, like those people in Iraq? You’ve been in a war right here.’ … He listened to my story. No one had ever done that before. They’d been looking at symptoms but not the bigger picture. He said that with a little support and help, maybe some anxiety meds, I would be okay.”

Tek and a new team of health care providers also offered hope for Guy’s future: they believed she would live a life far beyond her existence as a patient. At first, she didn’t believe it.

“Dr. Tek kept saying all this,” she remembers with a smile. “And I’m like, ‘I’m going to ride on his hope until I find my own.’ ”

Over the next few years she rebuilt her life. She thrived on her new care regimen. In 2006, her therapist connected her with the PRCH, a research group that seeks to promote the recovery, self-determination, and inclusion of people experiencing psychiatric disability by focusing on their strengths and the valuable contributions they have to make to their communities. At PRCH, Guy met Chyrell Bellamy, M.S.W., Ph.D., her mentor and collaborator, and launched her career as a licensed peer support specialist.

Peer support, explains Bellamy, connects people who have experienced mental illness and/or trauma with others so they can support them on similar journeys. “I think it works initially because of the connection,” explains Bellamy, assistant professor of psychiatry. “The connection happens quicker than in other helping relationships because of the person’s ability to disclose aspects of her or his own narrative, creating common ground.”

Today, Guy works primarily at the macro level. With Bellamy and other members of the PRCH team, she does participatory research, designing studies and interventions for people in recovery. She analyzes qualitative interviews and co-facilitates trainings and workshops for mental health professionals. She enjoys sharing her personal story with doctors, psychologists, social workers, and nurses to demonstrate how they have the power both to help and to harm their patients. Her work has taken her across the country and abroad, most recently to São Paulo, Brazil.

Guy, like everyone in recovery, experiences ups and downs. The work of recovery, she explains, is about finding your own path. These days she’s interested in the small things that people do to help them survive and thrive.

“Tell me what you do on a daily basis,” Guy says, “not about the war you’ve been through, because everybody’s been through a war. I think people want to know more about how you live on a daily basis with this ugly disease and stigma that’s been put on you.”

As Guy knows from her own journey, people’s lives are far from over when they have mental illness. No matter how bad things get, she says, “You are still that person you were before you walked into the mental health doors.” And the world needs what you have to offer.

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